Monday, August 3, 2009

“About three lines”? Wrong.

Dance critic Mary Brennan on The Royal Ballet of Flanders’ The Return of Ulysses:

Its choreographer, Christian Spuck, comments wryly that in Homer, which is the inspiration for his clever, witty modern ballet, the faithful Penelope only rates about three lines in the entire Odyssey.
“About three lines”? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Penelope appears in ten of the poem’s twenty-four episodes (and is quoted by the soul of a dead suitor in one more). Like her husband, she is a figure of tremendous resourcefulness and metis [craftiness, cunning, trickery]. She has, after all, resisted for many years the patriarchal imperative that she remarry, puting off her suitors by weaving and unweaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes. Penelope’s colloquy with Odysseus in book 19 is for many readers the poem’s greatest moment, a dazzling and poignant episode-long display of these partners’ homophrosunê [likemindedess]. And in the ancient world, Penelope almost had the last word: some commentators thought 23.287 the fitting end of the poem. It’s Penelope who speaks to Odysseus that line and the one preceding it:
“If the gods are going to grant you a happy old age,
There is hope your troubles will someday be over.”

[Translation by Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000).]
None of these matters have been lost on contemporary classicists, who have devoted considerable attention to Penelope’s role in Homer’s poem. Only someone sans real familiarity with the Odyssey could make the claim that “Penelope only rates about three lines” — or think such a claim wry. Homer’s poem is a far more complicated matter than smug 21st-century assumptions about antiquity and gender might allow.

And speaking of the 21st century, here is a sample of the production’s official description:
Poseidon wears flippers, goggles and a giant tutu while the goddess Athena becomes a tour guide equipped with a megaphone. And as the music of [Henry] Purcell blends effortlessly into Doris Day, tightly choreographed corps-de-ballet becomes revue-style dancing.
Odysseus, help!

Related reading
All Homer posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 4

Elaine Fine said...

Doris Day? Does she get her own Island?

DF said...

I'm wondering if "comments wryly" is the journalist's way of saying the composer of the ballet said the "three lines" line with a wink and a nod. Maybe that's giving folks too much credit. They don't value the classics in the UK as much as they used to.

Michael Leddy said...

David, the sentence that follows says that “Spuck puts her centrestage” — that seems to suggest that the writer and he both have the sense of Penelope being a minor figure in the poem. Thanks for reading generously, which made me go back and check. I can’t see anything here but a shared mistaken sense of the poem.

Elaine, I’m still trying to think of a reply, but all I can do is smile at the thought of Doris Day Island.

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine herself came up with the best response to the question of whether Doris Day gets her own island: The future’s not ours to see.